The 11-4 New Orleans Saints travel to take on a division rival, the 5-10 Carolina Panthers, this afternoon in the regular-season finale for both teams. New Orleans has won the NFC South, but could still earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason with a win, a loss by the Green Bay Packers, and a win by the Seattle Seahawks today. The Saints, 5-0 in the division, could also become the first team in the 19-year history of the NFC South to sweep the division with a win.
New Orleans will be challenged to do it with a shorthanded squad, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Already down injured wideouts Deonte Harris, Tre'Quan Smith, and All-Pro Michael Thomas, the team will also be without its top four running backs. Alvin Kamara was placed on the Reserve-Covid list earlier this week after a positive test, putting his status for a potential wild-card game next weekend in jeopardy. Because of their close contact with Kamara, fellow backs Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington, and Michael Burton were also ruled out of today's game.
Defensively, the Saints will be without injured safety Marcus Williams, along with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and D.J. Swearinger (Reserve-Covid list) in their defensive backfield. With so many players out of action today, the team’s outstanding depth will be tested. Here are a few key position battles to watch in today's clash.
SAINTS OFFENSIVE LINE vs. PANTHERS DEFENSIVE LINE
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees will still have some weapons available. Tight end Jared Cook and WR Emmanuel Sanders are proven Pro Bowl performers. Taysom Hill, rookie WR Marquez Callaway, and veteran Ty Montgomery are trusted contributors who will play bigger roles today.
Protecting Brees and establishing a running game with Montgomery, Hill, and UDFA rookie Tony Jones Jr. will be the major key to offensive success in this game. The Saints have one of the NFL's most balanced offenses because of an athletic and dominating offensive line. They have more rushing touchdowns than any team in the league and rank 7th in rushing offense, 6th in red-zone efficiency, and 6th in 3rd down conversion percentage. Brees has been sacked just 11 times in ten games, and must be given outstanding protection today to find the targets out of his thinned receiving corps.
The Saints rushed for 138 yards and averaged 4.8/carry while rolling up 415 yards of offense and allowing Brees to be sacked once in a 27-24 victory over the Panthers in October. Starting guards Andrus Peat and Nick Easton have been hampered by injuries in recent weeks but should be back in the lineup this afternoon. New Orleans has an elite pair of tackles in Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, while second-year C Erik McCoy is a developing star.
The Carolina defense ranks 17th against the pass, 16th against the run, and 31st on 3rd downs. They have only 27 sacks this season. Defensive end Brian Burns, who leads the Panthers in sacks and is their best defensive player, is doubtful today with a shoulder injury. Armstead and Ramczyk must shut down the other Carolina ends Yetur Gross-Matos, Efe Obada, and Marquise Haynes to allow Brees to go through his progressions. The New Orleans interior needs to control rookie DT Derrick Brown, the 7th overall selection, and the other Panther tackles to open up holes for their running game and provide a clean pass pocket.
MARSHON LATTIMORE/JANORIS JENKINS vs. D.J. MOORE/ROBBY ANDERSON
Fifth-year wideout Robby Anderson has had the best year of his career in his first season with Carolina. Anderson has 92 receptions for 1,056 yards and 3 scores. He has six games with over 80 yards and 11 games with at least five catches. Anderson is an effective route runner underneath with the speed to make plays over the top, but has been slowed by a groin injury in recent weeks.
Third-year WR D.J. Moore leads his team in yards per catch and has 61 receptions for 1,092 yards and 4 touchdowns. Moore is a big-play threat from anywhere on the field with his game-breaking speed. He has 14 catches for 300 yards in his last three outings against New Orleans, scoring 4 touchdowns in the last two meetings between these teams. Moore has seven games of over 90 yards receiving this season.
The Saints have the league's 5th ranked pass defense because of terrific pressure up front and lock down coverage from a terrific pair of cornerbacks in Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins. Lattimore and Jenkins also allow coordinator Dennis Allen to design aggressive game plans because of their ability to shut down the NFL’s top wideouts. Lattimore, who earned his third Pro Bowl bid in four years, has an interception and allows just a 55.6% completion percentage when targeted. Jenkins is tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions and has surrendered only a 60% completion percentage when he is targeted.
New Orleans must generate heavy pressure on Carolina QB Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints have 42 sacks and 106 QB hits this season, but could only bring Bridgewater down once during their game in October. The Saints will have to shuffle their defensive backfield with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Williams, D.J. Swearinger, and Patrick Robinson out of the game. P.J. Williams will move to safety alongside Malcolm Jenkins, while Ken Crawley will be the team's 3rd corner. Lattimore and Jenkins must lock down Bridgewater's top two weapons, Anderson and Moore, in one-on-one assignments to allow the defense to design coverage packages to make up for their losses on the back end.
SEAN PAYTON vs. PHIL SNOW
Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the history of the NFL. He’s kept his offense at a productive level despite an injury to his Hall of Fame quarterback and a battered receiving corps. Now, Payton had three days to design a game plan without his entire running back unit against Snow, the defensive coordinator of the Panthers. Look for the Saints to have a quick rhythm passing attack with a few deep shots to keep the Carolina coverage off-balance. Payton's offenses have thrived with under appreciated running backs in the past, so don't be surprised if we see good production from either Ty Montgomery or rookie Tony Jones.
The Saints have won their last six meetings against the Panthers in games with any meaning. If you've watched this franchise at all over the last 15 years under Payton's control, then you know that we’ll see a well-designed attack with some new wrinkles against the first-year Panthers defensive coordinator. Payton has done his best coaching job in 2020. While he’ll probably be overlooked for the Coach of the Year award, he’ll gladly take a sweep of his division and no worse than a Number 2 postseason seed instead.
SAINTS - 27 PANTHERS - 20